Canada plays catchup as wireless providers create emergency alerts for cellphones

A new emergency alert system that transmits messages directly to cellphones, whether people want the alerts or not, is in the works for Canada.

The alerts would be transmitted to cellphone users regardless of their wireless providers. A similar system has been in place in the United States for years.

Once a message is sent out, it would be received by every cellphone in a geographic area, said Marc Choma, spokesman for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.   

The association represents wireless service providers and businesses that develop products for the wireless industry. 

The emergency messages would be used to alert Canadians to serious concerns like dangerous storms and possible terror threats. 

System tested in Ontario

The system could use an emergency radio channel that is picked up by cellphones, and enables the system to reach people even if the servers that handle cellphone calls and text messages are overwhelmed.   

“If there is going to be an emergency, the best way to reach people is with something that almost everybody has in their pocket right now, and that would be their cellphone,” said Choma.    

Lightning in Calgary

The alert system for cellphones would warn people of impending severe weather like these twin lightning strikes near the Calgary airport in August. (Submitted by Mike Maclean)

He said the alerts can also contain pictures and text. 

This “cell broadcast system” has already been tested in the Durham Region of Ontario, according to Choma. 

Public Safety Canada is working with the wireless industry to test the system. It’s the federal department’s mandate to keep Canadians safe from a long list of potential dangers, like crime, natural disasters and terrorism. 

System could cost $25M

The Department of Public Safety said the wireless alert system pilot project will be completed in 2017. Choma said setting up the system could cost wireless providers about $25 million. Despite the cost, he said, wireless carriers support adopting the system.   

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) launched a full public consultation on the emergency alerts in March.  


A test of the ‘cell broadcast’ system already took place in the Durham Region of Ontario. (Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images)

The CRTC refused to comment on the system. However, the comments Canadians made about the proposed system have been made public. Those comments are mixed, but some people don’t like the idea of being automatically included in the program. 

“Only implement such a system if it can be disabled by the end user so that it is not forced upon them,” wrote David Cole from Toronto. “That way, if it is poorly implemented, it can be turned off. Enough intrusion already.” 

“No, unless the CRTC prevents the wireless service providers from charging a fee to provide the service,” wrote Ernest Price from St. Catharines, Ont. 

‘Take it to a higher level’

In Nova Scotia, the emergency management office supports the system. Paul Mason, director of emergency services, said the province currently uses TV and radio alerts to let the public know about emergencies. 

“People spend a lot of time on their cellphones, and the alerts that would go out would have a loud noise that would get their attention … I think bringing cellphones in would take it to a higher level.”  

wdr-Mustang Flood-September 30, 2016

The cellphone alerts reach every phone in a specific area and could give people who missed alerts on TV, radio and online an extra chance to prepare. This car was caught in the recent flooding in Windsor and Tecumseh, both in southwestern Ontario. (Submitted by Donnie Johnston)

Mason expects the CRTC will make a ruling on the system by December. If the alerts get the go ahead, he expects it to take at least a year or two before the system is brought online. 

Public Safety Canada said it will work with all levels of government to make sure the alerting system is successfully implemented across the country.

Cell emergency alerts already in U.S.

A similar federal cellphone alert system already exists in the United States. It can only send a 90-character text message that can’t contain any pictures or videos. 

Superstorm Protecting The Land

Seawater floods the entrance to New York City’s Brooklyn Battery in the wake of Sandy in 2012. The emergency cellphone alert system in the United States was used during the superstorm to help move people to safe areas. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

Ben Krakauer, director of watch command with New York City’s Office of Emergency Management, said people cannot opt out of the program.
“A national program that works regardless of whether you live in the city, whether you have a New York City phone number or if you’re visiting us from across the country or around the world, is fantastic,” he said.

In total, Krakauer said, they’ve only used the federal emergency alert system eight times. He believes it has saved lives.  

Most recently, his office sent out a text message informing people of the search for Ahmad Khan Rahami, the Afghan-born U.S. citizen charged in last month’s explosives incidents in New York City and New Jersey.

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